When any man has a discharge issuing from his member (lit, “flesh”), he is tamei. Lev. 15:2

The best I could do this week was try to wrap my mind a little more around what some of the  ritual concepts found in Leviticus meant in ancient Israel. Take, for example, the adjective tamei (usually translated “unclean” or “impure”) and the related noun tuma (Usually translated “uncleanness” or “impurity”). Fox writes that these terms are not well served by the usual negative translations: the Hebrew signifies a kind of “charged” state that must not come into contact with the sanctuary.

Indeed, this “charged” state is not a threat to the ordinary, only to the sacred—like kryptonite, it imperils not the human, but the superhuman.  That is why Milgrom can say, “In Israel, impurity was harmless. It retained potency only with regard to sanctums. Laypersons – but not priests – might contract impurity with impunity; they must not, however, delay their purificatory rites lest their impurity affect the sanctuary.”

Such an understanding of “impurity” depends in turn on a dynamic and localized understanding of “holiness” in the sanctuary.  Enough “impurity,” enough ritual and moral pollution, could contaminate the sanctuary beyond repair and force God to abandon it.  This concept underlies the original conception of the Day of Atonement, where the holy shrine was “decontaminated” every year.

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